The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Friday, October 3, 2014
Current Affairs ... Technology ...

I got into some drama the other day with the head monk of my Zen sangha. The head monk, who in real life is a successful local attorney and family man, another aging Baby Boomer like myself, asked what I thought about the new IPhone 6 craze. I was in a touchy mood that day, and his otherwise well-intentioned and generally innocent question set me off into a diatribe about the evils of smartphones.

My barrister-monk inquisitor was really just trying to make some friendly small talk, since I have become known to the group as the “science guy” and I’m generally pretty good with PC-level computer applications (e.g. I run the zendo’s web site). My semi-monkish inquisitor has been using smartphones for many years now, and as with most of the professional-class in the industrialized world, the smartphone has become an integral part of both his work life and his personal life. Since I can also be considered part of that “class” (I think), his assuming that smartphones are also a big part of my life was not unreasonable. Given my general technical interests, why shouldn’t he have assumed that I was a big fan of Apple and was intrigued by all the wonderful and amazing stuff that it and its Android competitors are packing into those bright little square things that you carry around all the time, so close to your body.

So he was taken aback a bit by my actual response. I started rambling on about not becoming overly dependent upon technology, how life is more than staring at a screen and pushing buttons, and how a Zen student should first be concerned with the trees and the clouds (the whitish-gray ones, not “THE” cloud …). I mentioned that I was assigned a Samsung Galaxy at work and thus far I’ve kept it locked in a desk drawer. I finally brought my spiel to a close by saying that “I just don’t want a computer in my pocket!!” I’m not sure that I was being entirely coherent, but you could certainly tell that I harbored no great affection for smartphones.

The next day, I was in a calmer and more reflective mood, and thus became a bit more circumspect about smartphones. I certainly don’t like the fact that using a smartphone is more expensive than what my antiquated little call-and-text-only dumb phone costs. I’m not in the mood to pay $500 more per year just to stay up with everyone else. But admittedly, the smartphone of today can do so much more. I don’t travel much now or do much “recreating”, but once upon a time I did; I can thus understand how helpful it could be to have an easy means of finding a good restaurant or knowing instantly where a movie is playing and when it starts, or how to get back on track when you’re lost or hail a taxi or other kind of ride (yeah, I’ve heard of Uber).

And then there is the easy communications management (calls, e-mails, text messages, social media feeds), all in one handy place (right there in your pocket!). You can compare prices for merchandise while in a store, and decide whether to buy something there or go elsewhere for it (or get it online). And if you do buy it at the store, you can probably just click your phone to pay and then carry the thing away, no waiting in line at the cash register. You’ve got all your contacts and daily scheduling and financial stuff right there too, along with your favorite videos and songs and movies and photos. And it’s all so easy, you can now manage it by voice, just talk to the thing and it will figure out what you need. They are already being hooked up to body sensors so as to constantly monitor our vital signs. They remind us of our appointments and commitments, tell us when we’re running late, try to find shortcuts through traffic, and much other stuff. I mean, what’s not to like? You get a lot of things that can make an active life so much easier and more enjoyable for a mere $600 per year.

Well, yes . . . but actually, I don’t live such an active life anymore, and my benefits from “going smart” would thus be more limited. Sure, it’s nice to be able to look anything up on the Internet at any time from any place, but to be honest, most of the occasions when I might want to do involve nothing more then trivia. One of my fellow Zen students told me that if I had a smartphone, I could watch video lectures by all sorts of great Zen teachers such as Roshi Bernie Glassman . . . but to be honest, I’m not all that impressed with Glassman nor any other Zen “teacher”. I told him that I’d probably find it more enlightening just to look at the sky or the stars.

So right now, smartphones wouldn’t improve my daily life all that much, given my limited horizons at present. But that’s not to say that they don’t bring a world of good to others who do get out a little more than I do. So maybe I was being a bit too harsh with my “head monk” about his (and most everyone else’s) growing dependency on smartphones.

But still . . . there is something a little bit creepy about these things. They are certainly “smart” in terms of the computing capacity they have within in them, but most of their smartness comes from being networked by radiowave with a variety of much bigger information processing systems. In other words, they mainly do their work by “talking” with outside entities that are run by a variety of different (and generally quite powerful) corporations and government agencies. And almost none of us knows just what they are saying to these entities or hearing back from them at any one time. We are now trusting these powerful little things with a lot of the details of our lives; I mean, they are there with us (right in the warmth of our pockets) for almost all of our waking hours! They go where we go, they are involved in more and more of what we do, they can figure out what we like and what we don’t like . . . they even might know our pulse rate and blood pressure, and thus get clues as to our moods. In sum, they probably know more about you than anyone else, including your spouse, parent or best friend!! So at some point, you might start to wonder . . . can we trust them?

At first this sounds ridiculous . . . hey, it’s our machine, it’s our little toy, it can’t think for itself . . . oh, wait, more and more it CAN think for itself. That’s what the whole “smartphone race” is all about, isn’t it? And it constantly babbles away thru dashes and digits in the airwaves, talking with who knows what database or command center. Are we sure that this increasingly capable little thing with which we have become so intimate is always on our side?

Hmmm . . . is that what I was getting at when I said that I don’t want to go around with a computer in my pocket? Could I claim that I appreciate the power of computers and realize that such power can be used to both help me and, if in someone else’s interest, to hinder me too? Or is it just that I’m paranoid?

Well, as they say, just because I’m paranoid does NOT mean that nobody is after me. In doing a quick search today (NOT via a smartphone), I came across a long list of articles and discussions on privacy concerns about smartphones. Looks like I’m not by any means the first person to have punched the phrase “is my smartphone spying on me” into Google (and not everyone who does so wears the proverbial tinfoil hat). There are quite a few entries on this, many from very intelligent and reputable sites. For a quick sample of some good discussions on smartphone privacy issues, see here and here and here and here, for example. Is the dystopian paradise of “1984” finally sneaking up on us courtesy of the smartphone? One of the scariest reports I saw today was about how the Chinese may be using smartphone networks to spy on and possibly manipulate or apprehend the young protestors in the Hong Kong “umbrella revolution”. Are these young people being exploited via the fact that they are all EXPECTED to have computers in their pockets . . . it’s what everyone does!?!

Bottom line, I’m not signing up for a smartphone right now (never say never, though). And I hope that more and more people will think a bit more deeply about what they are giving up in return for all the wonders that smartphones and the big-brother networks that support them provide. My “head monk” zendo companion would do well not to simply assume that all of this modern splendor comes without a price . . . that price might be more than the monthly plan fee from T-Mobile or Sprint or Verizon. Perhaps the public CAN have the best of both worlds, it can have all the techno-goodies and yet maintain personal privacy and self-protection. But it won’t come automatically . . . there may yet need to be a bit of street revolution, umbrellas or otherwise, in order keep “big brother” at bay in the 21st Century.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:15 pm      

  1. Jim, I can’t say how much I agree with you on Smartphones; for once I totally agree with you. I do also have some additional things that bother me about the Smartphones of today.

    First of all, I wonder about the price of these things. Sure, the cost of the phone itself is say $600; but then, how much does one pay for all the little “extras” (each app, ringtones, additional minutes, additional access to the Internet, etc.). I refuse to believe that all those things come free; my hunch is that each has its own additional cost per month. Basically, I can’t afford one. Maybe I’m just jealous, but I don’t think that’s what bothers me about Smartphones. (And it is a marvel to me as I write this in Microsoft Word that the word “Smartphones” does not come up as a misspelled word.)

    One of the things that completely bothers me about each and every new piece of technology that comes out is the “oh, wow” factor, as I call it. People can’t seem to get over “oh, wow-ing” about what all the new piece of technology can do. I had the Geek Squad guy here to check out my computer recently. He managed to convince me (because I was actually supposed to *save* money) to buy my own modem. When he installed the new one, he told me I was now “actually running at 30 (whatever it was) instead of the 5 I had been running at. He was amazed and delighted that I would have all that extra “speed”. I have to confess that since I got the extra 25 whatevers, I can tell absolute *no* difference in how fast my computer is running. It’s still doing all the things that annoy me and doesn’t seem faster in any way to me at all; yet it amazed the Geek Squad guy. I find myself asking, what’s wrong with this picture? Something is, but I’m not sure if it’s me or the *idea* that the computer is faster. I *do* know I’m missing something that the Geek Squad guy “got”.

    One day I was sitting waiting in the doctor’s office. Across from me were 2 young girls and a woman who seemed perhaps their mother. All 3 of them were busy looking at their phones. I could have set the place on fire and I wonder if they would have noticed. I find myself wondering just what kind of communication there must be in families when 3 people sit gazing at a computer in their hand. Do people text each other now (even if they are sitting a foot away) rather than actually speak to each other? I find myself wondering is something is lost in the personal communication between individuals? As to *my* being near or about them, I could have fallen over dead and I doubt they would have noticed. It’s a lonely world in technology.

    I have to say that nothing can get me to hang up a phone faster than a request to *speak* to a computer! Somehow or other I can never manage that exercise. Maybe it’s because I do not *want* to speak to a computer.

    I find myself wondering: Does my phone have to *tell* me when I’m running late? I generally know that. And nothing aggravates me more than going on some online site and being told that my previous interests have shown I’d be interested in this or that. That is a guarantee that I will almost 100% *not* even give consideration to the computer’s recommendation. I do not need the computer at some store or other telling me what I might like. I know what I like and go looking for it.

    I find myself wondering if the young people growing up with these computers that tell an individual what he/she likes, wants to see, read, be interested in will end up as adults who cannot function without a computer to tell them what it is they like. Reminds me somehow of some 500 to 700 years ago when the king, queen (royalty of any sort) could not manage to get dressed without someone dressing him/her, washing them, getting clothes, actually putting clothes on their body, etc. A check of Downton Abbey shows just that: The rich had someone to pick out clothes, put the clothes on their bodies, etc. How the times changed and the “rich” as opposed to the “poor” finally had to learn how to dress themselves.

    I 100% agree with you and the whole business of “big brother” watching. I never once check something on Google that I don’t wonder who is noticing what I’m looking up and taking note of what and why I may be interested in that particular thing. (Not that my life is that interesting, but it does give one pause at times.)

    A while back I had someone I once knew very well about 50 years ago want to “talk” about those days and what happened during that time. All I could think of was: And exactly *where* will all this information be stored and who might have access to it, not that it may be that interesting, but one never knows. (It made me wonder what “The Cloud” actually is and what it’s supposed to do; I really do not know; but I don’t trust it.) As you say, just because someone is paranoid does not mean he/she does not have reason to be paranoid.

    Then there are all the young people who must be warned to “not” sext as it may have repercussions later in their lives. Not even sex is something private anymore? I may be told but somehow or other sex will always be private to me.

    I am in the classification of “old” now at this point in my life. I find myself wondering what the young people of today will be like 20 or 30 years from now, when I won’t be around anymore. Would I actually be interested in these individuals? Of course, a person from the 1800s who could not conceive of going anywhere without a horse might have said the same thing of people in the 21st century; would they actually be interested in someone who didn’t know how to ride a horse. I guess each time period has its own things that are worthwhile and those that are less than helpful. The people of the future will have to find their own way to deal with their times, and that will probably be a good thing for them. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 3, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

  2. Jim, One more tho’t: It seems to me that with technology the way it is today, the entire world has become like a small town, where everybody knows everybody else’s business, feels free to comment on it, and have an opinion about it, and should and does expres that comment as if it were the most important thing the “commentee” ever heard. Definitely a bad side effect of technology. The whole world has become a small town, it seems to me. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 4, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

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